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How Cities Can Protect Poor People and Minorities From Climate Change

They're the most vulnerable to disasters, but they don't have to be.

harvey flooding street sign
When environmental disasters strike, low-income people and minorities are hit hardest. Not just because they have fewer resources to help them recover, but also because they usually bear the brunt of a disaster in the first place.

Communities of color are frequently exposed to greater air pollution, water contamination and heat stress than white communities. They also tend to live in areas most vulnerable to flooding and other types of disaster.

A new report from the liberal Center for American Progress (CAP) outlines steps cities can take to increase climate resilience by focusing on low-income communities and communities of color. In other words, it’s about environmental justice, an issue that’s just starting to gain awareness in local governments.

“[Resilience] is not just about strengthening infrastructure. It’s about protecting communities that are most vulnerable to the effects of climate change and getting to the heart of what is increasing risks and vulnerabilities for certain populations,” says Cathleen Kelly, a senior fellow at CAP and co-author of the report.

The paper is targeted at local leaders rather than federal ones, CAP says, because the Trump administration remains reluctant to acknowledge climate change’s role in extreme weather and natural disasters. Even as large swaths of U.S. territory have been hit hard by three exceptionally powerful hurricanes within a month, the White House has downplayed discussions of global warming's role. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Scott Pruitt said it would be “insensitive” to speak of the cause of the hurricanes, while President Trump told CNN that “we’ve had bigger storms than this.”

“We’ve had to move our focus away from the federal government and toward cities that are trying to fill the leadership gap,” says Kelly.

The inequitable impact of environmental disasters played out clearly in the past month. Houston is one of the most racially segregated cities in the country, and communities of color are clustered in the floodplains that were hit hardest by Hurricane Harvey. Puerto Rico, which was severely damaged by both Hurricane Irma and Hurricane Maria, and where 40 percent of the population lives in poverty, will suffer perhaps the greatest hit. Its entire electrical grid has been knocked out, likely for months, and the federal response to the crisis has seemed to many to be less urgent than its responses to Harvey and Irma.

That's exactly why cities that want to mitigate disaster impact should focus on economic equality as well as environmental preparedness, Kelly says. “[Equity] can’t be a side goal, it must be a core framing of a city’s action plan.”

Some cities, including Boston and Baltimore, have already begun incorporating income inequality into their sustainability planning. Portland, Ore., as Governing has previously reported, was one of the first U.S. cities to consider how environmental changes are affecting communities of color, resulting in a climate action plan that took into account things like energy costs for low-income households.

"One of the best resilience strategies is to raise incomes in low-income areas,” Kelly says. "Low-income people often don't have the funds to prepare themselves for a flood or other disaster, to protect their homes, to move out of harm's way or to rebuild afterward. So we have to focus resilience efforts on giving people economic opportunities."

To that end, the report recommends measures like a Washington, D.C., job training program, D.C. Water Works, which is meant to boost efforts to hire locally for D.C. Water’s biggest projects. It's a dual win, CAP says: While the city makes itself more resilient to climate change, it's also helping residents do the same.

The report also mentions affordable housing and the serious equity problems that can result from city efforts to increase sustainable infrastructure. As neighborhoods become more "green," they tend to become more desirable to middle- and upper-income residents and displace the low-income residents originally living there. Los Angeles’ Measure JJJ is an example of what cities can do to mitigate these problems. The measure set affordable housing mandates for new developments near public transit and set local hiring standards for developers and construction companies building new units.

Perhaps most crucially, the report stresses the importance of outreach and communication with low-income and minority communities.

“These people know what a hot day feels like, they know what a flood looks like, they know they’re vulnerable,” says Kelly. “They’re in the best position to identify risks and offer solutions.”

Natalie previously covered immigrant communities and environmental justice as a bilingual reporter at CityLab and CityLab Latino. She hails from the Los Angeles area and graduated from UCLA with a B.A. in English literature.
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